Jóhann Jóhannsson died the other day and the world is less because of it. If you don’t know who he was, he was an innovative composer. If you have seen the films Sicario, Arrival, and The Theory of Everything then you’ve heard his music there in the background. He has scored three more films yet to be released: An action thriller with Nicolas Cage called, “Mandy”, a biographical drama film called, “The Mercy”, and the biblical drama film called, “Mary Magdalene”.
Jóhannsson’s music went beyond genre. He would blend electronics and classical inspired by minimalism, drone music, and other classical and electronic music. As a longtime fan I wanted to, as a respect to the man and his work, go through some of my favourites of his.
IBM 1401, A User’s Manual
In 1964 the IBM Data Processing System arrived in Jóhannsson’s home of Iceland. Jóhann’s father was an IBM engineer and one of Iceland’s first computer programmers. He used this hardware on the computer to compose melodies in his downtime. Jóhann found these recordings in his family’s attic 30 years after they were made. He decided to use them in his own music. So, after writing pieces for a sixty-piece orchestra spanning over five chapters, the strings swim and soar above a 30-year-old sound of a computer. If this piece was theory, it would drown. But, with the heart that Jóhann pours into these pieces, the sound of his father’s recordings on this old IBM comes across as melodic, but most of all, respectful. The ending of this album hits such a strange, compelling, and emotional note it kind of takes you back. A computer says a bit of rethought Dorthy Parker saying, “The sun’s gone dim and the sky’s turned black because I loved her and she didn’t love back.” And then the strings slowly fade away. It’s a fantastic album.
Fordlandia, believe it or not, is an actual place.
The story: Henry Ford (yes, that Henry Ford) sets out in the 1920s to find a way through the rubber monopoly at the time (held by Dutch and English rubber barons. Yes, I know … rubber barons. How was that a thing?). So, Ford creates a piece of American paradise in the middle of Brazil where he doesn’t have to pay taxes on the exportation of goods. This small American like town existed in the middle of the forest and had strict rules on alcohol, women, tobacco, and for some reason football (soccer). And just like America at the time it had prohibition, picket fences, and hamburgers. The workers rioted, of course, cause that shit is really fucked up. Nothing came of Fordlandia but Ford himself paid about 20 million dollars on the project, around 500 million now of days.
This album tells this story with music. If you look through the song titles it tells you more to uncover with Jóhannsson’s theme. He brings up Pan, god of nature. He also talks about Heim theory, which is basically a crackpot theory of physics joked about as being science fiction.
That’s what I like about Jóhannsson, though his themes are thick and have meaning, you can also just not give a fuck and listen to some good tunes. I have my theories on what this album means. I hope more people will listen and look into this beautiful piece of art Jóhannsson has left behind.
This album is based upon the Orpheus myth. If you don’t know, Orpheus is a major Greek myth. He was able to charm all things, even stones and shit, with his music. He once tried to free his wife from the underworld but turned back too quick on the way out so … whoopsie daisy. And, he ultimately died cause people, who couldn’t hear his music, killed him. But Jóhannsson sees more to this story. I’m not going to go into my own theories of this album because it was made to be explored (though I do think the movie “Orphée” from Jean Cocteau is part of it). I believe this album is one of the easiest to swallow and best of Jóhannsson. It also just happens to be the last of his solo records. Put this record on and you’ll hear similarities with Rachel’s, Satie, Paul Hillier, Michael Nyman, and Thomas Newman. It’s simple yet complex.
Jóhannsson made classical music for people, not musicians. Probably now known most for his film work, it’s difficult to say goodbye to someone so smart and talented, especially when they died so young. I will certainly be putting on Jóhannsson in the background for the rest of the week and will keep these albums with me for the rest of my life. They impacted me at times when I needed to be impacted and challenged me in ways I needed to be challenged. I won’t forget him.